The fundamental aim of mobility infrastructure has always been to connect people, link settlements and structure the territory. Humanity’s history is the history of mobility infrastructure. Without paths, bridges, tunnels and roads, there are no stories to tell.
But looking at Europe now, where most population lives in urban areas, often surrounded by overused, congested, noisy, and air-polluting mobility infrastructure we must ask ourselves: How did we get here? How should we begin to address this issue?
Cities are growing. Today’s global population is increasingly urban and this trend is expected to continue. Less than 30% of the total human population lived in cities in 1950 and over half of all people do so today. In 2050 the world’s population is expected to increase by 2 billion and it is estimated that 70% of the total will live in urban areas. In the European context, despite the fact that Europe is not expected to grow, the urbanisation process is unstoppable, and almost 85% of the European population will live in cities by 2050, making the reality of the European community majorly urban.
From an urban point of view, when we say cities, we mean urban areas organised around multiple cities; in other words, a complex structure of cities -few or many- that works as a whole; that is, a metropolis.
If we wonder why cities grow, we can answer that people mainly move to urban areas to access all the opportunities the metropolis has to offer.
Urban area’s appeal resides in the extensive array of services available for their citizenry - everything we need and everything we want - from the most functional to the most spiritual. People will therefore try to access them in the quickest and most comfortable ways.
People move, as they already did in the past, they do today and will continue to do so in the future. From subsistence-driven migration in the past, to the contemporary new-nomadism of our digital and interconnected era, including daily commutes today, people’s movement within the urban area are increasing substantially.
People still move driven by subsistence – food or labour – but also do so to access to knowledge, education, culture, leisure activities and due to social relations.
Regardless of its driving force, movement is a vital element in people’s lives. People don’t move to cities to be isolated, hence the importance of providing and organising mobility and accessibility for everybody and everywhere.
The right to mobility is, in fact, the right to the whole city. And it is not only a functional element but also a fundamental and structural value in the way to an inclusive and non-discriminatory society.
Paradoxically, not all metropolises today ensure the adequate connectivity of everybody to the places they may need to commute to. This is so because metropolitan mobility infrastructure design and use has mostly revolved around the use of private cars, with the exception of train tracks.
As population increases, the urban area grows, and infrastructures that once lay stretched apart, now are getting closer and closer, especially in the suburbs. Roads and other tracks are not integrated with the city around it. They are not accessible to everyone and their use doesn't adapt to the new mobility requirements arising from the current citizen's contemporary lifestyle.
These mobility infrastructures generate fragmentation, disconnections and other negative externalities. They usually consist in high-speed fenced roads with few traffic-light crossings, separating neighbourhoods and causing discontinuities in green spaces. They are often overused, therefore inefficient even for car mobility, and have no exclusive lanes for public transport or for active mobility, which makes them doubly ineffective.
Also, they produce externalities that directly affect the nearby population, such as low-quality space around them, pollution and noise. Other externalities such as climate change, driven by excessive energy consumption and CO2 production, end up affecting the whole community. Nobody wants to live in such a place!
If mobility operating patterns remain based on car use, as they are today, the existing infrastructure will continue to be insufficient, as it is already proving to be on many accounts today. To realise this, we must simply look around and see how congested cities’ connecting roads are or count the hours lost by suburban commuters in daily displacements.
Instead of adapting mobility infrastructure to an increase in car use, what if we betted for optimising infrastructure we already have?
"While metropolises grow, we have two options: to further increase the space allocated to infrastructure, which, in most cases, is unfeasible in many aspects, or to rethink, transform and integrate existing mobility infrastructure with the city around it, making it more efficient, equitable, sustainable and spatially attractive while reducing social segregation among other externalities”. This, says Joan Caba (urban planner at AMB and the project’s coordinator), is the main goal of RiConnect Action Plan Network.
RiConnect is an Urbact III’ Action Planning Network (APN) composed of 8 metropolitan entities: Area Metropolitana do Porto (AMP), Obszar Metropolitalny Gdansk-Gdynia-Sopot (OMG-G-S), Stowarzyszenie Metropolia Krakowska (SMK), Major Development Agency Thessaloniki SA (MDAT), Vervoerregio Amsterdam (VA), Métropole du Grand Paris (MGP) and Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), led by Area Metropolitana de Barcelona (AMB).
RiConnect is a network of metropolitan authorities that want to address a particular issue - the right to mobility- that affects all citizens, mending possible disconnections between the centre and peripheral areas and uniting the city as a whole.
Cities that are rethinking the urban mobility infrastructure within them are blooming in Europe. They have already begun to restructure the use of the streets, recovering the space that had been allocated to cars and using it to foster public transport and active mobility.
However, few have done so on a metropolitan scale.
The metropolitan authorities are essential for making future decisions that take into account the interests of all parties. Without their commitment, it would be impossible to achieve the main goal, which requires leadership and management capacity of the benefits for several municipalities.
So far, eight metropolises have already committed to doing so.
The Street-Path-Road-Highway-Street story
It is interesting to observe the dynamics of roads connecting metropolitan cities. This road here started as a path, maybe even a dirt track that stretched away from a street in the town centre. As the city surrounding it started to grow, it became a road at the edge of the city’s centre, but also became the main street for the neighbouring cities. As the cities grew, cars, scooters, trucks and buses started circulating along fresh pavement that covered the dust and cobblestones that once defined it.
This paved road eventually became a fenced highway, but the unbearable traffic transiting along it made the villages decide to build a bypass to divert its traffic, with the intention of recovering the highway-road-path as the city’s main street. However, it continued being a road in the cities’ suburbs. That is why both municipalities agreed to transform the highway into a broad metropolitan avenue connecting both towns, to bring back the concept behind the first paths and roads that connected them.
While cycling, Oriol Ribera, urban planner from the Barcelona Metropolitan Area, showed us a similar metamorphosis: "The C-245 could transform after C-32 construction. It used to be a fenced four-lane road only for cars, and now it will change into a four-lane road, two of them for cars and the other two exclusively for buses and parallel lanes for bikes and pedestrians on both sides. The roundabouts will transform into urban squares. This transformation will increase the surroundings development potentialities instead of reducing them".